Camping in the Sahara

sahara desert morocco camel shadows

The van cruised along, seven of its passengers asleep, leaving just me, our driver, and tour guide, Ismael, to take in our surroundings. They’d done this tour hundreds of times, but for me, it was the very first time I laid eyes on the Sahara–and it felt like a welcome sight after the past couple of days making it there.

My friend Chris and I booked a Sahara Desert camping tour based on a recommendation from his uncle and because of a blog post I’d read a year or so prior to my trip to Morocco. It was the thing I was most looking forward to–riding camels, camping under the stars in the desert, and sitting around a fire. But the journey there was a rough one. The driver, who’d navigated those roads and knew them like the back of his hand, took them at breakneck speeds–whizzing past other cars and whipping around hairpin curves. The control-freak in me was white-knuckling it through–holding on for dear life and, despite my lack of religion, calling upon Morocco’s deity, Allah, to keep us from toppling over the edge and plummeting to our untimely deaths. Others in the van were worse off than I was–reaching for the plastic bags that held their souvenirs just to have something to vomit into.

desert wear scarves morocco

When we finally reached those red sands of the Sahara and the flat, straight roads that led us there, I think we were all a little relieved that the jostling and sickness were behind us (at least for a night). But there was more fun in store for us: a 2-hour journey into the desert on camel back.

I’d never even ridden a horse before, so I had no idea what riding a camel was going to be like. Before I left, I’d seen the title of Liz’s post about falling off a camel, and decided to NOT read it until after I’d gone on my tour. I knew all I’d worry about is succumbing to a similar fate (only, I’d also worry about breaking my back, becoming paralyzed, never being able to travel again, etc.).

I crawled atop my camel with so much excitement I was practically bursting. Chris and I snapped photos of each other and a few doublés (pronounced “do-blays”; the term we coined for selfies with two people) before our Berber guide stood us up on the camels. Then began what was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever encountered in my life (and I broke a couple ribs and fractured my pelvis years ago–so that’s saying something).

meganotravels on a camel

A camel’s stride is not graceful and the “saddles” that we were on felt like torture devices. There was no stirrup for your feet, only a metal handlebar to grip, and a sole woven blanket protecting what is probably the most sensitive area on your body from some very ill-placed metal bars. After two hours of being thrust forward down every hill and being tense from holding on, I was anxious to dismount. And when I did, I felt bruises forming on the insides of my palms and, pardon my French, my crotch. The thing I’d most looked forward to turned out to be the thing I hated the most.

Thankfully, watching the sunset over the dunes worked as a good distraction for at least a little while. And what would follow for the next couple hours was worth the four-hour round-trip camel trek and the sleepless night (thanks be to the drunken tourists in the other group who shared our tents).

sahara desert night stars

After throwing our things in our tents, Chris and I climbed a dune to get a night-time view of the desert. What we saw was magnificent. The sky lit up with more stars than I’d ever witnessed and after standing in awe for a few minutes, I set up my camera to take some photos. Not long after, we were called back to camp to eat dinner–a shared tajine with some bread and a plate of oranges. But my heart and mind were elsewhere–I wanted to go back to the top of that dune and watch the stars. So as soon as we finished, I high-tailed it back where I got another surprise: the moon was rising.

There I sat, watching my very first moonrise and it just happened to be over the Sahara. And it was magical. Soon, Chris and I were joined by the lone Brazilian from our tour. Manuel is the type of guy you hope will be a part of your tour–he was always full of jokes and laughter, wanting to have an awesome time. Chris and I took to him instantly, thankful that we weren’t the oldest (Manuel being in his 50s and the girls in our group all being in their early-20s), and also thrilled that he shared a similar (and sarcastic) sense of humor. He sat with us for a little while, watching the moon and the stars, and then pulled out some hash.

moonrise over the sahara desert morocco

I’m not really one for drugs–I smoked my fair share of pot in high school and tried it once in Amsterdam (when in Rome, right?), but grew out of that phase quickly. So, when Manuel offered me the opportunity to smoke some hash, I was a bit apprehensive. It’s not legal in Morocco, despite its overwhelming presence, and so I had visions of being thrown in Moroccan prison (which I imagined was the worst possible place on earth) for even daring to think about trying it. But, I figured, what the hell? I’m in the middle of the Sahara Desert under a blanket of stars, traveling with my friend of almost 20 years, and this opportunity will likely never present itself again. So, I tried it. And hated the way it burned and made me lightheaded immediately. But I was glad I did–it felt like a rite of passage in Morocco.

For the next couple hours, the three of us hung out on the top of that dune taking photos in the moonlight and enjoying each others’ company. It was quite possibly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and something I will cherish forever.

sahara moonrise

After our sleepless night, I was eager to get back to the van I’d dreaded so much, just so I could steal a few hours of sleep–but first came the camels. Again. Manuel was in front of me, striding along so easily, and he shouted back, “Megan, have you found your zen?” Struggling to stay on my camel and to find a comfortable position, I shouted, “Hell no. But it looks like you have.” He quickly retorted, “Yeah, I smoked some hash before we left. I found my zen.” I laughed, trying not to concentrate on the pain, trying to talk myself through it, it’s almost over; you’ll be off the camel soon and then you can shower and get back to Marrakech. But when I saw another giant downward slope coming up and remembered how horrible that feeling was–slamming into the front of my “saddle”, my hands bearing the brunt of my weight and my legs tightening around my camel’s body so that I didn’t slide off, I yelled for my Berber guide.

“I can’t do it. I need to get off.” I felt like such a whiny baby–such a failure. But, he kicked the camel’s front leg and before I knew it, I was on semi-solid ground. Then, I spent the next 30 minutes sweating my ass off in several layers of clothing walking up and down those red dunes, occasionally stopping to empty my shoes of sand, and continuing on until I made it to our ending point. Everyone else had been there for a bit–I made that walk on my own. Slowly.

That trip to the Berber camp deep in the Sahara was equal parts amazing and awful. If I had to do it again, I’d take a 4×4 rather than a camel just to spare myself the pain and annoyance of it all. But I’ll never forget what a beautiful experience it was.

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  1. Pingback: Photo Friday: Moroccan Kitty - meganotravels

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